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smallpox longAs the world grapples with fearsome Ebola Fever, we have been through something similar before. Last time it was stemmed in Colonial America by a black African slave and his owner, a firebrand, evangelical, white clergyman.

Onesimus was a slave, owned by the Puritan polemicist and renowned preacher Cotton Mather (1663-1728). Beyond Black Studies Departments, the former is not much remembered nowadays, alas; while the pastor of Boston’s Old North Church is chiefly recalled as one who took notes at the Salem Witch Trials and may, or may not, have encouraged the judicial verdicts. Yet Mather, from a big family of influential preachers, wrote more than 450 books and pamphlets—many best-sellers—and much that still remains unpublished. He helped to talk a philanthropic merchant, Elihu Yale, into founding a college that never went anywhere (according to Harvard graduates). He read the works of medieval Muslim philosophers, and although he believed them to be damned, he found monotheistic inspiration for Christianity’s scientists, as well as a model “noble savage” whose attitudes might help to convert North America’s Indians. There was a lot more to Mather than a witch-hunt, and nobody has such multidisciplinary influence today.

As for Onesimus, we know little more than that he came from West Africa; that he was clever and he saved countless thousands of human lives. The town fathers of Boston should put up a statue to him, or to Onesimus and Mather together. According to diaries, Mather did not seem to like him much, and the slave’s opinions were ignored by history, but their combined effect was monumental.

Smallpox was yesteryear’s Ebola and killed as many as one in five Europeans in the 18th Century, from commoners to kings. Altogether the disease killed twenty – sixty per cent of its victims, and eighty per cent of infected children. The survivors were almost guaranteed to be disfigured for life, often hideously; but there was no cure and little prevention. It came in epidemic waves, starting about 10,000 BC, and may have killed the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V.

smallpox 2An 18th Century layman, resurrected today, may see similarities between smallpox and Ebola. Inhaled from human spittle, smallpox only revealed its symptoms after 12 days and resembled bad flu. It migrated from the mouth to the lymph nodes, followed by nausea, vomiting and fever. Then fever subsided while lesions grew in the mouth and throat and soon burst, disgorging pus and more virus into the saliva. Two days after the oral lesions appeared, a rash began, usually on the forehead. Over another week the lesions started spreading over the skin, growing larger and deeper and filled with more pus. If you survived, then scabs formed and deep scars remained.

It killed Pocahontas, monarchs Louis IV of France, Maria Theresa of Austria, Louis I of Spain, Peter II of Russia, Mary II of England, and the Shunzhi and Tongzshi emperors of China. Survivors included Mozart, Beethoven, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Generally speaking, prevention was impossible. But West Africans knew about inoculation.

Inoculation differs from modern vaccination. The former introduced a tiny amount of the same deadly disease into the patient, who after a usually mild illness developed immunity. The latter introduces a vaccine; a milder pathogen that tricks the body into developing immunity against the more dangerous disease. Vaccination, which may have been known to India circa 1000 BC, was pioneered in the West by Englishman Edward Jenner, who warded off smallpox with the friendlier cowpox three generations after Mather died—Thomas Jefferson was an early beneficiary. But in 1706, when Onesimus shared his revelation, neither treatment was known in Europe or North America.

We do not know from where in West Africa Onesimus came, but their traditional medicines treat us all now—kaolin clay used in Mali is today’s Kaopectate, while Bantu healers’s salicylic acid is modern aspirin. West Africa’s rich cultures produced Benin’s portrait bronzes, and modern-day Nigeria’s Yoruba civilization had a sophisticated tradition of playwriting and drama by the 18th Century, much of which survived. The slave’s name sounded vaguely Yoruba to me, but it refers to an escaped slave whom St. Paul converted to Christianity and sent back to his master (Philemon 1:10-11); so it was probably bestowed by Mather or a previous owner. We know that the grumpy and reluctant Mather eventually let Onesimus buy his freedom, providing that he kept doing chores including stacking firewood, shoveling snow, and fetching water (precisely how the long list left time for freedom remains puzzling).

Boston suffered smallpox outbreaks in 1690 and 1702, and in 1706 Onesimus recalled how he had been inoculated against smallpox as a child in Africa. Mather paid attention. Boston failed to ward off smallpox by quarantine—sealing its harbour, and even posting armed guards outside of its House of Representatives. It disrupted commerce but had not worked well. Maybe the slave’s recollection might.

Long before, it could take years to hear of a book and obtain it. By 1716 Mather read a treatise on inoculation by a doctor in Constantinople, and when smallpox returned to Boston in April of 1721, on a ship bound from the West Indies, Mather was ready but Bostonians were not. As deaths mounted in only two months, people fled to remote villages and farms. Mather wrote abstracts of the research available and sent it to the local doctors, none of whom replied. Finally Dr. Zabdiel Boylston agreed to inoculate his only son and two slaves; it seemed to work. When the epidemic broke in October, he had inoculated 242 and only six had died (2%), while smallpox infected almost 6,000 with nearly 900 deaths (16%).

Yet Bostonian doctors and many laymen made what Mather recalled as “a horrid Clamour” against inoculation. Local government tried to ban it, and Benjamin Franklin’s brother supported the rumour that it spread smallpox rather than stopped it. Opponents declared that it failed to fit with medical theory, being neither “sympathetic” toward a disease nor “antipathetic,” meanwhile quoting Jesus: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12). While doctors cited scripture preachers dabbled in medicine, arguing the impropriety of creating a fresh wound in a healthy patient and injecting poison. Someone hurled a firebomb into Mather’s house.

After 1721, once the inoculated began to be quarantined in their homes, fear reduced and the effectiveness grew clear. Doctors learnt that inoculations worked best in the warmer months. Boylston travelled to London, published his findings, and was elected to The Royal Society in 1726. Twenty years later, patients were better prepared beforehand and smallpox was more safely introduced into the body. By then the principle was well-established, and by 1798 Jenner found cowpox and replaced inoculation with vaccination.

Even so, the two technologies spread slowly—Lincoln (b. 1809) benefitted from neither. Some 300-500 million died of smallpox in the 20th Century; in 1967, 15 million were infected and 2 million died; the WHO declared it eradicated in 1979; and it was formally extinct on earth in 2011, after US and Russian governments promised that it had been eliminated from their arsenals of biological weaponry. Three lessons remain.

Firstly, while grateful to be rescued by Science we ought not to be fooled by Scientism. The opponents of inoculation were not idiots—neither the frightened masses amid a deadly epidemic, nor their educated allies who referred to the prevailing opinions of medicine and faith. Their fears were justified but eventually dispelled. Real scientists are rarely as ignorant or dishonest as the ideologues of Scientism, who long to paint yesteryear’s prudence as superstition and its bygone proponents as dolts.

Secondly, we must guard against the same ideologues condemning every safely dead clergyman as some retarded sorcerer. Mather’s complicity in the Salem trials is far from assured; and if his religious certainty (called intolerance and possibly so) has fallen from fashion, then his mind was bright, his heart sincere, his energy indefatigable, and his secular achievements of indisputable value.

Thirdly, had Mather not championed inoculation in New England, it would have reached Western attention from Constantinople or elsewhere. It was not exclusive to West Africa.

smallpox 3But it would never have started in Boston were it not for a firebrand preacher who knew how to listen, and a bright-minded slave who, inoculated and perfectly safe from the disease, still wished to protect his fellow-man. An American de facto but not de jure, Onesimus—kidnapped from his loved ones, shipped in chains, renamed, converted perhaps forcibly and buried in an unmarked grave long-forgotten—had a bright mind, a will to help others, and without whom thousands of lives would surely have been lost in Colonial America and many more worldwide. Need we a better example of one who set aside justifiable resentment out of devotion to the Good, the True and the Beautiful?

Join me and raise a well-deserved glass to Onesimus, and Mather too. If anyone builds them a statue I will raise a donation as well.

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Published: Jan 15, 2015
Stephen Masty
Stephen Masty (1954-2015) was a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He was a journalist, a development expert, and a speechwriter for three US presidents, British royalty and heads of government in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He spent most of his adulthood working in South Asia including Afghanistan, and he was a writer, poet and artist in Kathmandu.
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